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Hollywood's wartime movies had a mission beyond entertainment and morale building. The War Office suggested topics and vetted scripts for movies that would inform the public on various aspects of the war. Call it propaganda, but nods of appreciation to various allies were often slipped in where possible. Positive views of Chinese were added to movies, to educate Americans that not all Asians were enemy Japanese (and don't think that Chinese-Americans didn't have a problem with this). Besides making films touting all branches and sub-branches of our military, Hollywood extolled the sacrifices of foreign resistance fighters in Norway and France.
MGM's The Cross of Lorraine was made in the summer of 1943, when the tide was just beginning to turn in favor of the Allies. It's an anti-Fascist movie designed to mend the reputation of the French Army that in 1940 offered a pitiful resistance to the invading Germans. Some Americans were resentful that their sons were yet again spilling blood for a country that seemed at best ungrateful. Key writer Ring Lardner Jr. portrayed Frenchmen as uniformly dedicated to democratic principles, and smarting for the chance to rise up against their Nazi occupiers. A virulent anti-Fascist, Lardner also took the opportunity to stress the idea of a communal alliance. His character schematic includes a rotten Quisling, and a ruthless 'voice of experience' in the form of a Spanish Communist who knows the true character of the enemy. At one point a prisoner suggests that the Nazis are making their prisoners into soap. That horrifying statement isn't pursued further... was this just an unconfirmed rumor in 1943? Were the writers doing their best to air facts not being stressed by the war authorities?
In 1940, a platoon of French infantry is ordered to surrender to the Germans, with the promise that they'll be sent home to 'rebuild France' under the occupation. The platoon is instead shipped to Germany, where they are robbed, starved and denied medical supplies in a POW lager more akin to a concentration camp. The cross-section of French types includes Paul, an idealistic lawyer (Jean Pierre Aumont); François, a doctor (Richard Whorf); Victor, a young hothead (Gene Kelly); and Pierre, a family man (Wallace Ford). Trying to keep them together is Father Sebastian (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), a priest forbidden to hold religious services. Rodriguez, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War (Joseph Calleia) is a cool killer calmly waiting for an opportunity to spill Nazi blood. Sniveling wine salesman Duval (Hume Cronyn) immediately volunteers to translate for the boorish Nazis. He accepts privileges denied his peers and tries to get Paul to collaborate as well. Duval snitches on his fellow Frenchmen, leading to more than one death. Victor is beaten so badly that he loses his will to resist. Paul then takes charge. He becomes a 'trusty' as well but only to find a way to help his friends escape. The key is through the slimy, sadistic Sgt. Berger (Peter Lorre). Berger makes weekly trips across the French border to buy finery and other swag for his greedy superiors. Paul agrees to go along, as part of a risky plan to liberate his entire cellblock!
The Cross of Lorraine depends on an ensemble cast to put its story across. Good-looking French star Jean-Pierre Aumont made his contribution to the war effort in exile, while for Gene Kelly Lorraine was probably another contract assignment aiming to make him a dramatic star. Kelly is perfectly adequate, but his rebellious character is a one-note conception. The script types the rest of the prisoners so narrowly that talents like Sir Cedric Hardwicke seem wasted: all he's called upon to do is strike noble poses and sacrifice himself for the spirit of his fellows. In his third movie, excellent actor Hume Cronyn has great fun with his rotten turncoat, the kind of rat who probably sold out his fellow Kindergartners on the school playground. He's actually more hiss-able than Peter Lorre's venal Sgt. Berger, a kiss-up creep. Lorre gives Berger plenty of colorful detail. Lorre also gets one of the more gruesome death scenes in his filmography, proving that patriotic war movies pretty much had a license to break Production Code rules.
Writer Ring Lardner Jr. and associates sock it to the Nazis, but relate them to a larger threat. By far the most realistic (and politically touchy) character is Joseph Calleia's Spaniard, who is fighting for the French to kill international Fascism. I've seen only a couple of wartime movies that even mention Fascist Spain under Franco, whose dictatorship succeeded partially with help from Hitler and Mussolini. The U.S. State Department clearly wanted Spain to stay neutral and not join with the Axis (which it was aiding anyway). Calleia's Rodriguez definitely goes over the line: those in the know will realize that he's fighting for the Communist cause. Wartime movies never openly acknowledged the fact that our alliances sometimes had us fighting alongside partners with conflicting political aims. 1
Hollywood war movies made during WW2 promote a sense of spirit and united purpose not seen before or since. The call for Allied unity often suggests that all those downtrodden European countries are really little Americas calling for help. Whenever an American flyer is shot down, peasant farmers risk their lives to protect them. Tortured resistance fighters worship the day when the Yankee saviors will come, and express appreciation for the arms and assistance being dropped to help them. We now know that the 'resistance' was a patchwork of groups often working against each other and so riddled with informers that active cells didn't last very long. Spymasters in London provided agents and radios but precious few weapons, as they frequently couldn't tell which contacts were genuine and which had been taken over by clever Gestapo counter-espionage units. The Cross of Lorraine promotes a pro-invasion fantasy: that the captured French Army was spoiling to fight again, and that grassroots France was ready to rise up against its oppressors.
Director Tay Garnett was a big talent in MGM's corral but also a team player that took whatever assignment he was given. He whips The Cross of Lorraine into good shape, stretching rationed wartime resources to lend European flavor to a film shot on the back lot. Vehicles and even some guns are American-issue, and it is left up to immigrants like Aumont and Lorre to make up the difference. Garnett handles the various dramatic scenes in the camp quite well, especially when the prisoners turn on the informer Duval. The noble suffering of Gene Kelly's character now seems less successful, if only because Kelly's later breezy screen persona works against accepting him as a not-too-bright martyr.
The film's almost laughably optimistic ending sees some escaped French prisoners inspire a downtrodden village to revolt against their Nazi occupiers. The villagers burn their own town to the ground and then march away singing ... to where, exactly? In actuality, the Germans let some captured French soldiers go home, and kept many more to work in their factories. The mass escape and open revolt are wishful thinking, a fantasy that action-oriented matinee audiences must have loved.
The title refers to the not-so-secret secret symbol of the Free French and the resistance. Although the most daring fighters in the underground were often foreigners, Jews and communists, the two-barred Crusader's Cross of the Knights Templar served as a flag of liberation against the Nazis. The Cross of Lorraine emphasizes its Christian meaning to denote that God is on the side of Father Sebastian, the French resistance and of course, America.
Jean-Pierre Aumont had an incredibly long career. Truffaut used him to exemplify the 'established star' in his Day for Night. Among the prisoners is Jack Lambert, a not particularly good-looking Broadway actor who is excels at representing the misery of the ordinary French prisoner. Lambert played ordinary guys and the occasional enemy soldier during the war; afterwards he was typed as a mouth-breathing thug in films noir and westerns, with names like "Dim-Dum" Clarke, or "Charlie", the unlucky gunfighter in Aldrich's Vera Cruz. 2
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Cross of Lorraine is a sharp, well-preserved transfer of this B&W morale/propaganda thriller. The soundtrack is also in excellent condition. A trailer billboards most of the film's action moments. Respected critic James Agee could be rough on war movies but liked this one. He praised Tay Garnett's direction - all the way until the "foolish coda" with the impromptu revolt.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Cross of Lorraine rates:
1. For instance, the invasion of Sicily got major assistance from local rebels that wanted independence from Italy. Our commanders made promises and then left them in the lurch, reportedly starting a chain of betrayals and assassinations that led to the formation of the modern post-war Mafia.
Flying into China from Burma, my father sometimes didn't know whether the Chinese that awaited them were Nationalists or Communists. It didn't seem to matter: both sides hated the Japanese equally, wanted the American supplies to keep coming and for the most part treated Yankee flyers well. But the political truce was always a tentative affair.
2. I've always thought it a pity that some producer didn't put together a western that would showcase eight or nine of these stock villains in roles that would allow them to play heroes: Robert J. Wilke, Lee Van Cleef (before major fame), etc. Most of them were trained stage actors.
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T'was Ever Thus.